Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Just Read...

Rob Bell’s Sex God: exploring the endless connections between sexuality and spirituality [Zondervan, 2007]. It is very, very, very good.

Bell has three things (at least) going for him (and they are closely related)

He really understands people:
I’m guessing there are various things that feed into this, including a community around him to learn with, and God-given insight. But the stand-out is his overwhelming compassion for people: a total absence of judgmental attitudes, combined with a deep desire that men and women should know the truth that sets you free.

He is a gifted communicator:
A natural story-teller. Random encounters become anecdotes; anecdotes become diagnoses. Words engage at several levels, inviting you to go deeper, further, beyond what made it into the book.
And the stories are accessible, whether you would consider yourself familiar with the Bible/culture/metaphysical questions, or totally unfamiliar: the tone is engaging, not patronising.

He knows the Bible:
Not just the lines on the page, but the spaces between the lines. Not just what is written, but the cultural contexts that inform how what is written was written – why God uses this picture image, rather than another; what that picture unlocks.
It is obvious that Sex God is under-girded by serious scholarship. And yet it is refreshingly readable.

Sexuality is the biggest issue in the life of anyone living in our culture toady.* Rob Bell’s handling of the subject – which is, in effect, a (pastoral and prophetic) handling of peoples lives – is a must read, for anyone with a pulse.

Buy it. Read it. Pass it on. Get it back. Read it again.

*Sure, we live under the shadow of the War on Terror, and global warming, and international trade injustice, but all these things – though they impact our lives, and our lives impact them – are external to us. Sexuality is us, and from the legal system (the UK’s new SOR’s, civil partnerships, proposed developments in embryo research…) to popular culture (glossy magazines, soaps, Hollywood, the music industry, advertising…), and back again, sex is quite simply bigger than anything else.

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Monday, July 30, 2007


Last night as I was going to bed, it struck me that there was nothing I had to do tomorrow (that is, today).

I didn’t have to take my daughter to school. I didn’t have to take my son to nursery. I didn’t have to go to work. There was nothing I had to do. And I couldn’t remember the last day I had like that. Days off, and holidays, don’t count: there are always things that have to be done on days off, or on holiday.

Such days are rare, but vitally important. Such days remind us – confront us with the reality – that being is more fundamental than doing.

Because when what we do flows out of knowing, really knowing, who we truly are – dearly loved children of God – then how we do what we do contributes to God’s life-affirming order becoming established where it was not before.

But when our understanding of who we are, our identity, derives from what we do – and how that compares with what other people do – then how we be who we be contributes to the meaning-less chaos becoming established where it was not before.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007


Back home again, after a week away at New Wine North, punctuated by three days at my Bishops' Advisory Panel.

Newark Showground was partially flooded, so the carefully planned-out allocation of sites for churches from across the north was somewhat revised, in order to fit all the tents on less than all the space...the result was that our (relatively dry) zone looked like a refugee camp (as opposed to some zones, that looked like paddy fields). With space at a premium, it's as well we had TARDIS tents. Check out the outside and inside shots, above.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ritual Cleansing?

I came across this today. Someone on our street is obviously having a new bathroom suite installed, and the old one had been ripped out and temporarily left out the front of the house. I particularly like that they left the soap in the basin...

Colour | Style

While I was out at blah, Jo was out at the launch party for two friends of ours who have established a colour and style consultancy. Here are some thoughts expressing why I think this is a wonderful example of incarnational Christian living; and not ‘too incarnational,’ in the sense of ‘indistinguishable from those around us who do not know God; no longer salt and light.’

When God created us, he paid attention to detail, choosing skin tone and eye and hair colour and body shape for each one of us, generating unique combinations from a set number of variables. When, in how we clothe our bodies, we make use of colours and styles that complement our God-given physical nature, a created being gives honour to its Creator. (And, conversely, when we fail to recognise our physical created-ness, we dishonour our Creator.)

When Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they will wear, as those who do not know God do, his point is not that what we wear is not important, but that God knows that it is important and he will provide for us.

When Paul writes concerning what women should or should not wear, it seems to me, his points are that Christian women should not dress in ways that would suggest, within the indicators of their culture, that they were prostitutes; or locate their sense of beauty in externals; and not that they should pay no attention to how they dress. (The same principles apply to men.)

What we wear speaks volumes about how we feel about ourselves. When we dress in such a way as to indicate that we do not believe that we are worthy to be anything other than slaves in our Father’s household, I believe this grieves the prodigal Father, who runs out to meet us coming to him with that attitude, and – disregarding it – places a fine robe around our shoulders.

Hudson Taylor encouraged his missionaries to dress as the Chinese, rather than in western clothes, so that how they presented themselves should not be a stumbling block to the gospel. Such an attitude was revolutionary within overseas mission in his day; and waits to be revolutionary in mission on our own doorstep today. When we present ourselves well, we are, quite simply, more approachable.

Specifically concerning our friends’ business, even in the setting-up of it, it has opened doors to lots of relationships, spiralling out from the school playground; and given rise to conversations about self-image, with opportunity to speak of how God sees us, as his beloved children.

This is not ‘Prosperity Gospel’: it is perfectly possible to dress well on a budget, even a tight budget, and with a limited wardrobe (and perfectly possible to run up massive credit card debt on ill-informed choices and look terrible as a result).

This is not ‘buying into’ worldly constructs concerning image, which hold people in bondage to the almighty Market. Rather, it is prophetically speaking freedom to those held captive by such concerns; and restoring the Creator’s rightful place, usurped by the Market.

It is true that at the point where you are first learning which colours/styles complement how God has created you the process can seem to take up a disproportionate and even inappropriate amount of time and focus. But that is true of learning anything. We don’t think that the time and focus needed to learn to drive is inappropriate, taking our thoughts away from God, or witnessing to others (indeed, we may even think in terms of the opportunities for the gospel that might open up through being able to drive, if we are so inclined). Once we are confident, we become unconsciously competent.

I pray that my friends’ venture will flourish, as a tree of healing whose roots go down to a spring of life.

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Incarnational Peregrini

It was good to have Mark Berry over in Sheffield again yesterday evening. He was at the Sheffield blah, talking about pilgrimage. Thanks for taking the time to come over!

It seems to me that the idea of pilgrimage has fallen out of favour among evangelicals: that it is frowned upon for being either too Catholic or ‘baptised paganism’ [= syncretism = sub-Christian; as opposed to = ‘redeemed, or transformed, culture’…]. Instead, in very recent times, we’ve embraced ‘going on retreat,’ though even that sits uneasily with evangelical activism. One could also argue that pilgrimage was re-invented, at an earlier point, as attending annual Christian conferences. But I say ‘fallen out of favour’ because when I were a lad – which is not too very long ago – one of the Approved Books of evangelicalism was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, so the idea of pilgrimage, at least as metaphor for spiritual life as journey, is not entirely alien. Within pilgrimage, both literal and metaphorical (and in contrast to retreats, or conferences), the journey is at least as important as the arrival, if not more so.

Anyway, Mark shared some thoughts on pilgrimage, as historical activity (both within and far wider than Christianity), in contemporary form, and as metaphor for life. And it was good.

The thing that struck me most was that he talked both about peregrini and about incarnational Christianity. Whereas there is the expression of pilgrimage which is to make a journey to a particular site (e.g. Stonehenge; Mecca; Lourdes; Walsingham) or along a particular route (e.g. the way to Santiago de Compostella; Canterbury), there is also that tradition where pilgrims set out from home, not knowing where they would end up, or if they would ever see their home again (e.g. the Celtic monks who set sail across the Atlantic, those who survived reaching, among other places, Newfoundland). These ‘peregrini’ literally belonged no-where. In contrast, the idea of incarnational Christianity as it is frequently discussed at present tends to focus on being grounded in a particular culture: focuses more on the fact that Jesus was embedded as a first-century Jew, than on his having no-where to lay his head.

So the question that Mark’s thoughts provoked for me was, how can we be – paradoxically – incarnational peregrini? What does it mean to be grounded within early C21st western culture, while at the same time not having a place to settle? How does being incarnational peregrini help us to be ‘in the world, but not of the world’?

The answer that came to me as I walked home, and talking with Jo when I got there, was that being incarnational peregrini means choosing to embrace the culture in which God has placed us, while choosing to reject the trappings of security that culture places its hope in (those things that put distance between us and poverty, or disease – that make us ‘of the world, but not in it’). For us personally as a family, that is the life we have lived since we sold our house and I left a secure job back in 2005, and we flew to Australia for three months, not knowing what lay beyond, but knowing who lay beyond, and coming to know that that was enough for us. (I’m not saying that home ownership or stable jobs are wrong per se; but while all Christians are called to be incarnational, perhaps we’re not all called to be peregrini.)

Anyway, thanks again to Mark for provoking our thinking, and to the blah crew for hosting the event – it was great to catch up with so many of you.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Too Christ-like?

It is great to have Andrew Hamilton back blogging. You’ve been missed, mate. This post, borrowing from Matt Stone [a really helpful little diagram], is worth a look. Hamo’s reflections certainly resonate with my own.

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Things To Satisfy Curiosity

Today, in the park, after school with my children, I received a complaint – frightfully polite, and very good-natured; but a complaint nonetheless – that it had been over a week since I had posted on my blog. Heaven forbid that I should fail to entertain my (numerically small but demanding) readership!

Elijah took his first steps on Saturday. Woo-hoo! And today, he had his first haircut – the Mohican has been scalped…for now.

I finished working as a disability support worker last Thursday evening; came home, ate my tea, and went out again to meet up with some other members of The Order of Mission – by which time it had completely escaped my mind that I’d just left my job of sixteen months. I don’t think it was a Senior Moment; or that I didn’t care about those I had been supporting; but that it was so very definitely time to move on. Job done. I’m sure that I will take with me transferable experience, but you can only do a role you are doing for meaningful experience, rather than out of your heart’s desire, for so long. I feel like Joseph, released from prison and being made respectable to appear before Pharaoh, his future held in the balance…

I have four more lunchtimes left at school, and then I will be done there too. And that has been a team that I will miss working with: it has been a lot of fun. I know that my working for the school has made a positive difference – not least because there is only one male member of staff, the estates manager – and been appreciated by the people I have been working with. That counts for a lot. The extent of interest in our plans, by staff and by parents in the playground alike, has been touching.

Over the past year-and-a-half I have done low-paid, low-skilled, jobs; almost entirely alongside women; including work with and for people with little education, (seemingly) limited prospects, few aspirations, near horizons. It has been a cross-cultural learning experience. If they do allow this highly-educated middle-class boy to serve as a priest here in South Yorkshire, it will prove invaluable; though I may not always have realised that at the time.

A week today I will be at my Bishops’ Advisory Panel. On the basis of how I fare in a range of exercises over two-and-a-half days; alongside a raft of paperwork submitted by myself, my referees, and the Diocese in advance; a panel of four men and women will decide whether or not to recommend me for ordination. And by early August, we will finally have a decision…

We’d hoped to be at this stage some months ago – while I passionately believe this is God’s call on my life, I can’t presume that the panel will agree; and we’d hoped to have time to find something longer-term by September if they say ‘no’ – but it didn’t work out that way in the end. In the end, it worked out that I’d be at selection conference while the rest of the family were at New Wine North (indeed, I’ll be there each side of my panel), with Jo surrounded by friends (including, it would seem, the parents of half the children I’ve looked after at school this year). So we’ll take that.

Hard though the process has been, we’ve been able to see God’s hand in it; had glimpses of him working behind the scenes in ways we wouldn’t have expected. One of those ways has been in the provision of school places for Susannah (going into Y2) and Noah (going into Reception) in a school in Nottingham – I hope to be studying at St John’s, Nottingham; we hope to move there in August – as well as in the Sheffield school where Susannah is currently in Y1.

Noah has three more days left at nursery, and then, after the summer, he’ll be a schoolboy. He is so ready; really looking forward to that…Susannah is preparing to leave her school behind. I think that will be hard, but at the same time, she’s really looking forward to the new school. Perhaps this is the hardest thing: that we can’t say it is definitely This or it is definitely That – and so we need to be saying goodbye without quite having the freedom to say a Proper goodbye…

Sunday, July 08, 2007

As Requested...

...by his god-mother, a photo of Noah. I hope it will do - it is a typical pose! More, of Susannah, Noah and Elijah (now free-standing), on my flickr page.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Cry Mercy

Further thoughts on God’s judgement:

The cross:
The crucifixion is a moment of judgement [HT to David Bole]. It is an ironic moment: humanity, represented by the Jewish religious and Roman civic authorities, passes judgement on God, represented by Jesus; while God, represented by Jesus, passes judgement on humanity, also represented by Jesus.
God’s judgement is that all humanity has fallen short, and the required consequence is the death penalty. That’s a stark, and all-encompassing, judgement. But God chooses to take on our penalty in our place. [Now, penal substitution may be problematic for some, implying some sort of monstrous cosmic child-abuse in a Father who allows his Son – even sends his Son – to suffer and die. But it seems to me that such an argument is only possible if we view Jesus as some kind of junior God, or God Jr. From a fully Trinitarian perspective, if Jesus is God, then the cross is God’s sacrificial self-choice – a choice not only made in the safety of heaven, but re-made in the horror of Gethsemane – to which God is entitled.]

Jesus’ return:
Jesus will return, to judge the living and the dead. The crucial question will be, How do we respond to God’s judgement that we fall short, and that he pay the penalty? The choice is to seek to save our own life, and die in the attempt, so losing it; or to die to self, through accepting God’s ruling, and so to live. We find ourselves in our own Gethsemane, wrestling with whether or not we will say, “Not my will, but your will” – which is that none should be lost; which was to die in our place – “be done.” In this sense, we pass judgement on ourselves, and God ratifies our decision. His judgement has already been passed, at the cross.

Mercy triumphs over judgement:
I must confess to being uncomfortable at the idea of God passing or imposing judgement between the two events of Jesus’ crucifixion and his return. At least, I am uncomfortable with the idea of his judgement, as it is usually expressed by people: in terms of loss of [quality of] life – flood, famine, HIV/AIDS…
I think that I am uncomfortable with such an idea because the cross proclaims that God’s judgement on humanity comes to us expressed as mercy. And if his judgement comes to humanity as mercy, how much greater is the coming of his mercy to us!

Where, then, does the idea of mercy triumphing over judgement leave the mission of the Church? Not in trying to convert people – for that is, and always has been, the work of the Holy Spirit. Nor in trying to save people from hell – for that is, and always will be, the work of Jesus Christ. But – as has always been the case – in making disciples: people who can live out a life, in this life, that follows after God; through whom judgement might be expressed through mercy, and mercy might be expressed through…love.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

After The Flood

Following the catastrophic flooding across much of central England last week, a number of Anglican bishops, in particular evangelicals, have spoken out to identify the flood as an act of divine judgement on our nation, not only for our failure to steward the environment [which would be harsh, given that there has been a rising ground-swell in environmental responsibility over recent years: why hit out at those who have repented/are repenting?] but also for our acceptance of homosexuals as equal members of society. [hat-tip to Maggi Dawn] While I am sure that there is much about our society that makes God sad – such as our failure to raise physically, emotionally and socially healthy children, for example – I am not convinced that God is responsible for the rise (in both frequency and severity) in flooding across the UK.

We need to go back to the Bible as myth. By myth, I mean a story that transcends its original context in significance, and gives meaning that helps us to make sense of the world in which we live. Myth does not necessarily mean ‘not historical.’ I believe that the biblical creation myth describes a series of historical events [as it happens, I believe it describes a re-creation of a pre-existent creation that has been significantly destroyed in the heavenly rebellion of satan, and God’s defeating him and throwing him down to earth, along with his rebel-angel followers].

It seems to me that the biblical myth presents us with, among other things, the following meaning as we look at the world around us:
God made the world and the mechanisms for life to flourish, and called every element of that inter-dependency ‘good’;
That ‘goodness’ has been compromised by the presence and activity of spiritual beings opposed to God;
Humanity is called to steward the earth, which includes working with God to liberate the rest of creation from the control of demonic powers; this is expressed perfectly in the human Jesus, through whom the creator becomes the created; however, at times we have cooperated, wittingly and unwittingly, with the demonic destruction of creation;
Powerful demonic beings are in particular identified with major cities (e.g. Babylon, Tyre, Ephesus, Rome) and with bodies of water (e.g. the Mediterranean; the Nile; the Red Sea; Lake Galilee). Although flooding is famously identified with God’s judgement in the story of Noah’s Ark, waters breaking over land is most usually identified as demonic destruction, to which God is opposed; while land is seen as a sign of God’s care for humanity, most notably in providing a Promised Land for the people he called-out to be a blessing to all peoples. So God defeats the sea demon Yam; confronts and defeats the god of the river Nile; parts the Red Sea, and the Jordan; so the sea of Galilee is whipped-up against Jesus who is on the way to deliver a multiply demonised man, and Jesus subdues this attack; so Peter, on whom the Church is founded, shares in the divine act of walking on the waters; so there is no sea in heaven;
Out of love for creation, God restrains significant demonic destruction (if not, we would be destroyed); but sometimes removes his restraining hand allowing demonic powers to do their destructive will within limits, in the hope that we might call out to God to be delivered;
We are caught up in a cosmic struggle in which we do not have the luxury of being neutral, and in which ‘natural disasters’ will only increase in frequency until the unknown day and hour when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, whether that day is imminent or will be delayed for millennia…

Where, then, does this leave us?

There is clearly a physical element to the flooding, and this may be magnified by both human activity that is aggravating rapid climate change and human inactivity to create adequate channels for certain slow-moving rivers;
This event gives rise to the opportunity for us to repent, of believing we are somehow above the rest of creation, and of failing to care for the rest of creation as we should;
The destruction caused by the flooding brings satisfaction to satan, and sadness to God; God may have allowed it to happen, but didn’t send it;
This raises the question, “Why would a God who is supposed to be both good and all-powerful allow this to happen?” to which we can answer, “Out of hope that we might call on him to deliver us, for God works in all circumstances, whether good or ill, to bring good for those who call on him,” for the thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, whereas Jesus comes to bring life in its fullness.

There is plenty of scope for a theological response to what has happened here this week, in ways that extend hope, not condemnation. And there is plenty of scope for the Church to get involved in practical ways in the local context, and in the future-strategy debate in the national context. There are plenty of ways in which we might extend the deliverance Jesus brings, both to those who have had their lives washed away and face (perhaps cannot face) re-building, and to the physical landscape.

I am sure that those bishops who have spoken out have done so after serious thought, and genuinely believe what they have said. And I don’t claim that my alternative reading – of both the Bible and events – is Right and that they are Wrong. But I think, for now at least, this is the ground I will stand on, and reach out to others from.

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